Jára Cimrman: When Optimists Should Be Shot

And now for something a little different:

The following is not my own. It is an excerpt of Rick Steves’s Eastern Europe: Sixth Edition. I really liked the piece and the story it has to tell of the Czech people. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“I’m such a complete atheist that I am afraid God will punish me.” Such is the pithy wisdom of Jára Cimrman, the man overwhelmingly voted the “Greatest Czech of All Time” in a 2005 national poll. Who is Jára Cimrman? A philosopher? An explorer? An inventor? He is all of these things, yes, and much more. Today, a museum celebrates his life (see the Museum of Jára Cimrman on page 106).

Born in the mid-19th century to a Czech tailor of Jewish descent and an Austrian actress, Cimrman studied in Vienna before starting off on his journeys around the world. He traversed the Atlantic in a steamboat he designed himself, taught drama to peasants in Peru, and drifted across the Arctic Sea on an iceberg. Other astounding feats soon followed. Cimrman was the first to come within 20 feet of the North Pole. He was the first to invent the light bulb (unfortunately, Edison beat him to the patent office by five minutes). It was he who suggested to the Americans the idea for a Panama Canal, though, as usual, he was never credited. Indeed, Cimrman surreptitiously advised many of the world’s greats: Eiffel on his tower, Einstein on his theories of relativity, Chekhov on his plays. (“You can’t just have two sisters,” Cimrman told the playwright. “How about three?”) In 1886, long before the world knew of Sartre or Camus, Cimrman was writing tracts such as The Essence of the Existence, which would become the foundation for his philosophy of “Cimrmanism,” also known as “non-existentialism.” (Its central premise: “Existence cannot not exist.”)

This man of unmatched genius would have won the honor of “Greatest Czech of All Time” if not for the bureaucratic narrow-mindedness of the poll’s sponsors, who had a single objection to Cimrman’s candidacy: He’s not real. Jára Cimrman is the brainchild of two Czech humorists—Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiři Šebánek—who brought their patriotic Renaissance Man to life in 1967 in a satirical radio play. So, even though Cimrman handily won the initial balloting in January of 2005, Czech TV officials—blatantly biased against his non-existentialism—refused to let him into the final rounds of the competition.

How should we interpret the fact that the Czechs would rather choose a fictional character as their greatest countryman over any of their flesh-and-blood national heroes—say, Charles IV (the 14th-century Holy Roman Emperor who established Prague as the cultural and intellectual capital of Europe), Jan Hus (the 15th-century religious reformer who challenged the legitimacy of the Catholic Church), Comenius (a 17th-century educator and writer, considered one of the fathers of modern education), or Martina Navrátilová (someone who plays a sport with bright green balls)? The more cynically inclined—many Czechs among them—might point out that the Czech people have largely stayed behind their mountains for the past millennia, with little interest in, or influence on, happenings elsewhere in the world. Perhaps Cimrman is so beloved because he embodies that most prickly of ironies: a Czech who was greater than all the world’s greats, but who for some hiccup of chance has never been recognized for his achievements.

Personally, I like to think that the vote for Cimrman says something about the country’s rousing enthusiasm for blowing raspberries in the face of authority. Throughout its history—from the times of the Czech kings who used crafty diplomacy to keep the German menace at bay, to the days of Jan Hus and his questioning of the very legitimacy of any ruler’s power, to the flashes of anti-communist revolt that at last sparked the Velvet Revolution in 1989—the Czechs have maintained a healthy disrespect for those who would tell them what is best or how to live their lives. Other countries soberly choose their “Greatest” from musty tomes of history, but the Czechs won’t play this silly game. Their vote for a fictional personage, says Cimrman’s co-creator Svěrák, shows two things about the Czech nation: “That it is skeptical about those who are major figures and those who are supposedly the ‘Greatest.’ And that the only certainty that has saved the nation many times throughout is its humor.”

Cimrman would agree. A man of greatness, he was always a bit skeptical of those who saw themselves as great, or who marched forward under the banner of greatness. As Cimrman liked to say, “There are moments when optimists should be shot.”

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